Romaine Brooks, photograph c1994
Romaine Brooks, née Goddard, was an American painter who worked mostly in Paris and Capri. She specialised in portraiture and used a subdued tonal palette keyed to the colour grey.
She ignored contemporary artistic trends such as Cubism and Fauvism, drawing on her own original aesthetic inspired by the works of Walter Sickert, and James McNeill Whistler. Her subjects ranged from anonymous models to titled aristocrats. She is best known for her images of women in androgynous or masculine dress, including her self-portrait of 1923, which is her most widely reproduced work.
Brooks had an unhappy childhood after her alcoholic father abandoned the family; her mother was emotionally abusive and her brother mentally ill. By her own account, her childhood cast a shadow over her whole life. She spent several years in Italy and France as a poor art student, then inherited a fortune upon her mother’s death in 1902. Wealth gave her the freedom to choose her own subjects. She often painted people close to her, such as the Italian writer and politician Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and her partner of more than 50 years, the writer Natalie Barney.
Two early works
Romaine Brooks, La Jaquette rouge, 1910, oil on canvas, 239 x 149 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA
in which attention is drawn to the model’s nudity by the jacket, and
Romaine Brooks, Azalées Blanches, 1910, oil on canvas, 151 x 272 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA
Which has been compared to similar subjects by Manet and Goya
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 131 cm × 190 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris France
Francisco Goya, La maja desnuda, c1797-1800, oil on canvas, 97 x 190cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Romaine Brooks, Self-Portrait, 1923, oil on canvas, 118 x 68 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA
The riding hat and coat and masculine tailoring suggest the conventions of aristocratic portraiture while also evoking a chic androgyny associated with the post World War I “new woman.” The choice of dress, which challenged conventional ideas of how women should look and behave, also enabled upper-class lesbians to identify and acknowledge one another.
Romaine Brooks, Ida Rubinstein, 1917, oil on canvas, 119 x 94 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA
Brooks met the Russian dancer and Ida Rubinstein in Paris after her first performance as the title character in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, which combined religious history, androgyny, and erotic narrative. Rubinstein was already well known for her refined beauty and expressive gestures, and Brooks found her ideal in the tall, lithe, sensuous Rubinstein, who modelled for many sketches, paintings, and photographs that Romaine produced during their relationship, from 1911 to 1914.
Romaine Brooks, Peter (A Young English Girl), 1923-1924, oil on canvas, 92 x 62 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA
The British painter Hannah Gluckstein, 1895-1978, worked under the name Gluck but was known within her close circle of friends by her nickname, Peter. Gluck met Romaine Brooks in 1923, and the two agreed to sit for each other shortly thereafter, resulting in this portrait and an unfinished one of Brooks by Gluck. Like Brooks, Gluck frequently wore clothing inspired by men’s fashions that concealed her feminine figure. This androgynous attire was popular among upper class women at the time. It allowed them to experiment with fashion.
Romaine Brooks, Una, Lady Troubridge, 1924, oil on canvas, 127 x 76. cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Una Troubridge was a British aristocrat, literary translator. She is remembered for her numerous translations from French and Italian, and is credited with introducing the French novelist Colette to English readers. She also wrote a biography of her longtime partner, Marguerite “John” Radclyffe Hall, author of the 1928 classic The Well of Loneliness. In 1908, Una married Admiral Sir Ernest Thomas Troubridge, but the union ended in 1915, the same year she met Hall.
Hall introduced Troubridge to Romaine Brooks, who captured her in this 1924 portrait. She has the sense of formality and importance typical of upper-class portraiture, but with the sitter’s prized dachshunds in place of the traditional hunting dog. Troubridge’s impeccably tailored clothing, cravat, and bobbed hair convey the fashionable and daring androgyny associated with the so-called new woman.
Romaine Brooks, Madame Errázuris, 1908 and 1910, oil on canvas, 239 x 148 cm Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Eugenia Huici Arguedas de Errázuriz was an influential interior designer. Many of the hallmarks of Brooks’s later portraiture are evident in the combination of respect and humour tinged with satire. Madame Errázuriz appears nearly overwhelmed by her ostentatious outfit as she gazes confidently, and slightly arrogantly, at the viewer.
She was painted by other artists
Left to right
Jacques-Emile Blanche, Portrait of Eugenia Huici Arguedas de Errazuriz. 1890, oil on canvas,163 x 86 cm, The Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Memphis, TN, USA
John Singer Sargent, Madame Errazuriz or The Lady in Black, c1883, oil on canvas, 82 x 60 cm, Private Collection
John Singer Sargent, Madame Errazuriz, c1880-82, oil on canvas, 54 x 48 cm, Private Collection
Romaine Brooks, La Baronne Emile d’Erlanger, c1924, oil on canvas, 106 x 87 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Brooks probably met Marie Rose Antoinette Catherine Robert d’Aqueria de Rochegude, Baronne Emile d’Erlanger, in exclusive social circles in Paris and London, where the wealthy sitter was an arts patron who organised Brooks’s 1924 exhibition at London’s Alpine Club Gallery. Brooks pairs the baroness with an uncaged ocelot, whose spotted coat and direct gaze echo the sitter’s own. The animal lends an air of exoticism, sensuality, and humour to this forthright portrait.
William Bruce Ellis Ranken, Lady d’Erlanger, c1890-1910, oil on canvas, 127 x 101 cm, Museum, Portsmouth, UK
Romaine Brooks, La France Croisée, 1914, oil on canvas, 116 x 85 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA
In La France Croisée, Brooks voiced her opposition to World War I and raised money for the Red Cross and French relief organisations. Ida Rubinstein, above, was the model for this heroic figure posed in a nurse’s uniform, with cross emblazoned against her dark cloak, against a windswept landscape outside the burning city of Ypres. This symbolic portrait of a valiant France was exhibited in 1915 at the Bernheim Gallery in Paris, along with four accompanying sonnets written by Gabriele D’Annunzio. The gallery offered reproductions for sale as a benefit to the Red Cross. For her contributions to the war effort, the French government awarded Brooks the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1920. This award is visible as the bright red spot on Brooks’s lapel in her 1923 Self-Portrait, above.